Even a series about Hollywood doesn't film here
Frankly, I anticipated blowback from favorably reviewing Canadian import “The L.A. Complex,” a newly acquired CW series about struggling young actors and wannabes in Hollywood.Granted, to people in Los Angeles, the concept of “runaway production” is hardly new, but for those smarting about showbiz jobs migrating north, this production — which lenses in Toronto, featuring nothing more than establishing shots to replicate the real L.A. — felt like a potential poke in the eye or kick to the groin, take your pick. Surprisingly, the show generated little attention — including from viewers, who almost uniformly ignored it. Yet the few responses I did receive triggered some thoughts about efforts to lure showbiz production from one locale to another — a more nuanced issue than just the Occupy Wall Street-like notion of rich bastards lining their pockets at the expense of below-the-line workers. Notably, when I penned a piece for the Los Angeles Times about the crush of TV production in Vancouver in 2000, the response was swift — and angry. Merely acknowledging the trend (which inspired one producer to dub the Canadian city “Hollywood sleep-away camp”) triggered accusations about L.A.’s hometown paper rooting against its signature industry, from people understandably fretting about lost income and mortgages to pay. What’s changed during the intervening years? For starters, the TV movie has dramatically shrunk in scope over the past 10-15 years, with fewer expectations of finding work in that field. At the same time, there’s been an explosion of original production for cable, including scripted series, many of which are shot in L.A. There also has been considerable and ongoing debate about using tax credits and related government incentives to attract filmmakers, including intramural skirmishing among states from New York to Hawaii — along with plenty in between, like Louisiana, Georgia, Michigan and New Mexico — vying for the perceived infusion of revenue such productions generate. The problem is, there will always be somewhere movies and TV shows can be made cheaper. And while incentives and tax credits can narrow the gap, relying on them becomes the equivalent of an arms race an expensive place like the real L.A. can never hope to win. Further complicating matters, Canada and a number of other countries — Hungary, South Africa and Northern Ireland, to name a few — continue to aggressively court business. Someone will invariably set the limbo bar lower, and still lower, to gain a foothold. Clearly, altruism and patriotism aren’t any more of a remedy than seeking to offset disparities in monetary exchange rates. And while talent generally likes sleeping in their own beds — especially when employed on long-running series, as opposed to movies — producers can still exercise leverage in these matters. Based on conversations with producers over the years, few make the decision to shoot outside California lightly. And while one can criticize major studios for pleading poverty, there’s certainly a case to be made — especially among the remaining independent companies doing TV movies — that a fragmented marketplace has created real pressure to hold costs to a minimum. Faced with those concerns, California lawmakers will soon decide how long to extend the state’s tax-credit program, which offers productions a maximum rebate of 25%, far less than that offered many others. Yet one veteran of the L.A. production community, who asked to remain anonymous, insists the whole state-incentive approach needs to be re-examined, having become a form of legalized bribery by public officials in their zeal to fatten tax coffers. “It’s a load of crap that productions can’t or won’t shoot here,” he said. “They’re just taking advantage of whatever scraps and giveaways they can get, wherever they can get them.” As noted, the underlying factors are complicated and elude simple answers, including the fact jobs for film crews and ancillary businesses will always be a scarce commodity — and, in an increasingly global economy, are welcomed every bit as much abroad as they are by Californians or neighboring U.S. states. Given its anemic ratings, “The L.A. Complex” will likely disappear from the CW with barely a ripple. Even so, the project should be remembered for its symbolic resonance — having delivered a pointed demonstration of shifting economic forces that have conspired to give so many people in L.A. an entirely different sort of complex.